thinks: bbc local radio, myers, music and me

I’ve just been reading John Myers‘ report into BBC Local Radio (find it here). I read it through the prism of being someone that used to work at BBC Radio Solent in Southampton and reading it made me think about my time there and reflect on what I think the issues are/were with BBC local radio.

I did a Masters degree in Radio Production at Bournemouth University (when the wonderful Seán Street was there) and afterwards struggled to find a job in radio. Eventually a friend working at Solent managed to get me in to “shadow” the Broadcast Assistant (BA) working on Sally Taylor‘s Saturday morning magazine show. This was a busy magazine show replete with studio audience and a live musical guest (a format later to be stolen by radio newcomer Terry Wogan for Weekend Wogan ). The show was a bit scattergun and nicely chaotic but it was great to be back in a radio studio again and I was excited to be behind-the-scenes at the (*stands up and salutes*) BBC.

Being stupidly keen I kept going in week after week (as nobody stopped me). I made coffee and tea. I took the audience members to the toilet. I carried the band’s equipment. I took phone calls. Standard how-I-got-into-radio stuff. After a few weeks the BA left and my friend who worked at Solent and I shared the (4 hours a week) BA job, each of us working every second week.

Still, being stupidly keen I would go in and help every week. It’s a 31 mile drive and meant giving up late Fridays and the first half of Saturday so it was expensive and required a fair bit of dedication.

But it paid off. My friend soon became less keen to work weekends so I picked up extra (paid) shifts and after a couple of months the Producer of the show announced that he was leaving. I believe there was a bit of behind the scenes chat but the upshot was that I got offered the job on a trial basis by the then Managing Editor Mia Costello (who had already been a figure of controversy for doing what she was told to do – bless her).

And then Mia left. I produced my first Sally on Saturday show on April 18th 2009 and on Monday 20th April 2009 new Managing Editor Chris Carnegy took over the reins at Solent. The timing here was a bit strange as Chris arrived with me already installed but essentially completely new (and pretty much completely clueless as to how to produce a show).

My philosophy for producing the show was DON’T CRASH IT! I wanted (initially at least) nothing more than to keep it running as it had been and not kill the thing by doing anything drastic or stupid. Which I think I did.

Groundbreaking radio

I was lucky in that the people I was working with were really fucking good at their jobs. I found an awful lot of this during my time at BBC Radio Solent. Sally was (and remains) a consummate professional broadcaster and I was able to be completely relaxed about the times she was in front of the microphone. Sally didn’t drive her own desk and that was great for me as it meant I could call on the expertise of the wonderful Rose Lyle or Jimmy Luff to help me sort out my impending panic (hopefully) without Sally noticing.

The show went along okay. As John Myers points out in his report on BBC Local Radio “the producers I met were good but again were often younger or less experienced than the presenter of the show they controlled” and this was true for my show and nearly every other show at BBC Solent. I was 38 when I started producing Sally On Saturday and although I was a great deal older than the show’s previous two producers I still found it a bit difficult to imagine exactly what my 50 + year-old listener wanted to hear. My strength lay in my (and my presenter’s) knowledge and love of music but when it came to jacking (that’s radio slang for “booking” fact fans!) stuff to do with lifestyle and food and the like I was hopeless.

The age issue with BBC Local staff is one that I don’t hear talked about within industry circles enough. The bulk of the staff at Solent during my tenure were younger than me. Every time I answered a telephone there the caller was older than me. Are people in their twenties and thirties really the best people to make content for listeners whose average age is 54?

Rachel Ward

What a 54 year old looks like

Another age issue relating to this is that the age of the average caller while I was at Solent seemed a lot older than 54. Rightly, there was always a drive to “get callers to air” but this was always a really tricky tightrope as when the switchboard lit up it tended to be the “usual suspects”: the listeners who listened all day, every day and who tended to be a trifle idiosyncratic in terms of world view. They also tended to be more mature than 54 years of age.

The Radio Solent Listeners Club

Why the disparity here? How is BBC Local’s average listener said to be 54 years old when every time the phone goes it’s someone who sounds 80?

I’m sure if I didn’t have a job and a child and stuff then I could scour RAJAR to check this but I think the answer’s sport. Since leaving Solent the only time I ever listen to BBC Local is when I’m listening to sport (or to Russ Winstanley’s excellent Northern Soul show on BBC Radio Lancashire).

Experience tells me that lots of Solent’s listeners are in their seventies or eighties so for the average listeners age to be 54 then there must be some young ones listening somewhere to pull that age down. I think they are listening to sport.

The sport team at Solent are magnificent. The enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge held there consistently impressed me. The sports shows always created lots of texts from listeners and when the phones rang the listeners were (mainly) male and noticeably younger than at other times of the week. The listeners to sport appeared to be an entirely different audience to the listeners of the rest of the output.

Sport on BBC Local radio is great, it’s really wonderful to be able to have partisan coverage of your local team provided for your courtesy of the usually painfully even-handed BBC. If you’re male and under 50 and listening to BBC Local radio then the chances are that you are listening to sport. The chances are that you also own a mobile phone and are quite happy to send your local station a text.

So sport has it lucky in one sense (that listeners seem keen to interact) and the sport team has it lucky in another sense (that the listeners to sport are closer to the ages of the team making it). No wonder the sport team used to sit in a self-satisfied corner of the newsroom slurping tea from their football mugs while the rest of Solent’s staff struggled to think of how to amuse and get decent, useable interaction from the more superannuated portion of Solent’s listenership. Certainly, audience interaction was minimal during the shows I produced…

The issue here is I think we were asking the wrong questions. Or the right questions in the wrong way. Or not enough questions. Or maybe we were being distracted with all the other stuff that was going on. Saturday mornings tended to be a lot of running around for me and my BA and (shamefully) sometimes the phone calls just didn’t get answered. 20/20 hindsight tells me this is a terrible indictment on my production regime.

As a producer I failed to make content that engaged the audience enough. I focused on jacking what I felt were quality guests and acts, rather than filling the show with stuff that would make the listener get involved. I (arrogantly) thought that 3 hours of great content would be enough to get people tuning in and coming back. I was (kinda) wrong.

Brian Aldridge

Gratuitous picture of Charles Collingwood from The Archers

Now, as a new producer to the BBC, I kind of expected to be giving some sort of help with stuff like this. A mentor maybe? Or a weekly/monthly aircheck with a line manager? A bi-annual review of the show? But there wasn’t anything really. I had a couple of brief chats with the show’s line manager during my first six months (maybe 10 mins altogether?) but that was it. The received wisdom was that management “didn’t care” about the weekend programming and that was pretty much my experience of it.

So I made basic mistake after basic mistake. Too many to mention here (if you remember any please feel free to add them to the comments below) but the one really embarrassingly terrible thing was I merrily moved features around within the show to suit the guests. So one week we’d have one live band on at 10:30, the week after we’d have three live acts on at 8:35, 9:35 and 10:05.


Ah, the music. Sally On Saturday was the only show based at Solent that had live music every week (Sunday evenings on Solent had Phil Jackson’s South:Live – now Introducing: The Southa good outlet for Hampshire, Dorset and Isle of Wight bands but broadcast from BBC Sussex in Brighton). So, for the musicians of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we were the show to know if you wanted to “get on the BBC”.

And, quite frankly, when I started producing this show we had inadequate equipment to “do” live music properly. And I had a very poor grasp on how to get a live act to air and make them sound anything other than rough as fuck.

Have a look at poor old Tiny Spark playing on the first show that I produced:

Yep, that’s right. I’ve got them to bring in one guitar and stuck an SM58 in front of all of them. Including (and this is my favourite part) the drummer who is playing his legs.

Boys, I’m sorry. And thanks for coming in.

Now, when the service licence for BBC Local stations clearly states that “it should provide opportunities for new and emerging musicians from the local area” shouldn’t it be a bit better prepared than this? Myers talks about facilities in today’s report and says that he was “genuinely surprised by the lack of investment in BBC Local Radio“. The station’s licence says it has to provide opportunities for musicians and yet it really had no facility for music apart from a large studio and a very basic 10 track sub-mixer.

Luckily, we did get better over time at producing music. Here’s the very lovely Owl In The Sun playing towards the end of my stint at Solent:

(NOTE: The audio on here is from the camera of an audience member not the mixed radio output)

AKG 414s mixed with SM58s. DIs. And lead vocal into a Rode NT1000 microphone that I bought myself. (I’ll put the ebay link up here when it’s time to sell it… most likely quite soon). Also by this time, thanks to Julian Moore of Georgia Wonder (talented duo and friends of the show) spending a bit of time with me and me persuading Malcolm the (superstar) engineer to buy a couple of cheap bits of kit we could do basic musical niceties (like compress things and do a bit of reverb). It made a real difference and the quality of the music we got produced on that show got better and better.

However, the figures for the show were never wonderful.

At this stage I had a short-term contract for full-time hours. I was working a (social) life-destroying split week of late shifts (8pm to 1am) Monday to Wednesday producing Paul Miller’s late night phone-in show and then late Friday / early Saturday producing Sally On Saturday. 

About half way through my contract Alex Dyke joined the station and – as he was new to the BBC and had a “bit of a reputation” – my working week was extended a couple of hours (for no extra pay of course) to oversee Alex’s Bubblegum and Cheese show. Naturally, I was hacked off and I whined like hell about it to Chris Carnegy  (and probably marked my own card at that stage).  The extra hours also meant I took an instant dislike to Alex Dyke, which was a shame as he’s actually bloody good at making radio and appears to have the limitless energy of a slightly “touched” Red Setter. Ask me now and I’ll tell you I like the chap…

I’d been given the Paul Miller gig as a kind of fudged solution as the previous producer had left to look after his family (I think his wife had changed job and he was going to pick up the family reins). Like Sally, Paul was (still is) a proper professional broadcaster and this made it a bit difficult to make changes and again reverting back to my “DON”T CRASH IT” maxim we probably didn’t do enough with the show.

Anyway, my contract ran out, Chris Carnegy told me he wasn’t renewing it and that pretty much was the end of my BBC career (so far). As an extra kick in the nuts the previous producer was reinstalled on the Paul Miller Show. I got taught the first cruel lesson of my radio career.

So, after a wee bit of a fuss, I left Solent at the end of 2010 (I had a wonderfully symbolic final shift on Christmas Day 2010 – you haven’t lived until you’ve cleared your desk on Christmas Day folks). I don’t know if my departure had anything to do with it but Sally decided to stop doing the show soon after that. The (very good) show that replaced it is a different format and now there’s no live music every week at Solent.

Which is a real shame. And not just for Sally and myself…

Here’s the first PJ Harvey song I ever heard:

It’s a belter, isn’t it? Polly lives in Bridport in Dorset. She’s a successful musician. She’s the only artist to have won the Mercury Prize twice.

If Polly was starting out today into the music business from Bridport in Dorset she would realistically have to travel to Brighton to play on Introducing: The South if she wanted to get onto her local BBC station. (Solent does still have occasional live music guests in Southampton but they tend to be sessions where there’s no tech set up, rather just a mic dragged down towards a guitar or whatever). For me, that’s a failure to deliver and a great disservice to the musicians of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

Bridport to Brighton: 134 miles

So, as you can tell, I’m very wise with hindsight and the perspective given to me by the passage of time. I’m no John Myers, mind…

In his report John Myers states that he found “too many people with management responsibility of some description” in the BBC local stations he visited. That was most certainly the feeling among my colleagues during my time at Solent. There was at least one member of management there that nobody really knew what their job role was (but they were always typing something).

Myers suggests that costs can be saved by “sharing” Managing Editors across regions (i.e. halving their numbers). This feels like a sensible place to start for me. Why not? Get them in two at a time, toss a coin and give one of them their cards. There’s not a single station going to drop off air as a result of that.

Myers says network across the whole fecking country in the evening (I’m paraphrasing now) and give the Indies a shot at it. Clever stuff.  There’s certainly the talent, creativity, understanding and budgeting skill in the independent sector to make that work.

Myers says update the equipment. Get BBC local out of the dark ages. Hallelujah! I’m teaching radio just now (places still available for September 2012) and it’s always strange to train students on decent equipment and then have to warn them about Radioman before they go off to the BBC.

So, I agree with John. I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear that. Do what he says BBC and that’ll help financially.

How BBC local gets listeners back (especially those naughty 55 – 64 year olds) is another question though.

How on earth do you programme a station that has sport as it’s “trump card” but whose other output is a straight turn-off for sports fans? How do you attract new listeners to BBC local while you tighten the pursestrings? Why does BBC local not have a slew of 50-something producers making programmes that are on target for their 50-something listeners?

Actually, what does the BBC Local do with all those bright young producers?

Ah, of course. It lets them go and they become Quixotic blog writers and L-plated academics tapping away in the dark, forever tilting at windmills…